Donor Spotlight: A Conversation with Shelly Chigier

“No research without action; no action without research,” the psychologist Kurt Lewin famously said. Shelly Chigier understands the interdependence of research and action well. A philanthropist and a dedicated meditator with a PhD in experimental psychology, Shelly is passionate about combining insights from her practice with the latest research in the field. And as trustee of the BESS Family Foundation, which she founded with her husband, Ben, Shelly and the foundation support evidence-based mindfulness and meditation programs in ways that “help human beings joyfully face the challenges of our time.”

In recent years, Shelly has focused her philanthropic efforts on the intersection of meditation practices and climate change.

Here, Shelly discusses her meditation practice, her work with the BESS Family Foundation, and what she loves about IMS, where she’s been a yogi and a donor for the past ten years.

Let’s start with meditation. How did you first get into it?

I’ve long been interested in how we can improve our lives by working with our minds. When I was in college in the early 80s, I read one of those self-help books about how the mind is like a set of building blocks that we can reconfigure, stacking them differently to make ourselves happier. I thought that was revolutionary. Changing my own mind certainly wasn’t an idea I grew up with!

But how do you actually change your mind to become happier? By around 2005 or 2006, I still didn’t have an answer to that question, but meditation was becoming more popular, and I was very interested. In early 2011, I went to a meditation retreat led by Larry Rosenberg at Kripalu, and that was a transformative experience. It really showed me what having a meditation practice could do.

Then I discovered metta meditation through Sharon [Salzberg]. My first retreat at IMS was Sharon’s metta retreat, back in 2014. Metta was so helpful to me because I could not—and often still can’t—still my mind. My mind goes at hyperspeed, so it is very useful to have these metta phrases to recite. I love the way that lovingkindness practice cultivates a gentleness and forgiveness towards oneself and others. Metta helped me to see more clearly who I am hurting when I hold grudges or am angry—myself! Experiencing the freedom that comes with letting go and learning to forgive was huge for me.

Was Sharon’s retreat also your first silent meditation retreat?

Yes. Practicing with Larry Rosenberg got me thinking about how amazing it would be to do a silent retreat. And it was amazing—and difficult, too, of course. But very rewarding. Over the years I have found, as so many do, that every time I arrive at IMS and enter the meditation hall, I just settle into the silence and the beauty of that space. I was recently at the Forest Refuge for the second time, and the same thing happened. A sense of having returned home came over me. I thought, “I’m here, and I’m present, and I’m going to do this!”

Tell us about the BESS Family Foundation, which merges philanthropy and the Dharma. How did it start?

My husband had a software company that he sold in 2008, and from that we started the family foundation. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, so I did a lot of research to learn about philanthropy. I was very interested in children and food insecurity, and I started there. I served on a food pantry board and worked with an advocacy organization. It was gratifying work, and I learned a lot about philanthropy. But in terms of the three T’s of stewardship—time, talent, and treasure—I could devote my treasure (giving funds) and my time (doing fundraising) to the issue of food and hunger, but not my talent. I found it emotionally difficult work and since I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor, there was little talent I could offer.

But then in 2016 or so I sat a retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn, where he talked about how we’re living in an all-hands-on-deck moment. And then it clicked for me: Couldn’t our foundation support these practices, which have helped me so tremendously, in ways that could benefit others?

I began with research to see what the evidence base was for mindfulness practice and, of course, there’s a mountain of evidence on the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation. We started slowly and ramped up to where we are today, offering grants to organizations that provide evidence-based mindfulness and meditation programs, supporting both research and applied programs. I am fortunate to meet so many inspiring people who are working for the benefit of all beings. It feels right.

You’re also quite passionate about ecodharma and environmental justice…

I really wanted to do my part to address climate change, and I wanted to make more of a contribution than simply writing checks to organizations. Again, the question, How? Then in 2019, Bhikkhu Analayo published Mindfully Facing Climate Change. I got a lot out of his book, and it excited me about the possibilities for this kind of work, but I must admit that much of his book spoke to a deeper knowledge of Buddhism than I had at the time, and perhaps still have!

During the pandemic, I spent my time online researching the intersection of mindfulness practice and climate change. What I was looking for was very personal—hope and agency. I know that some people don’t like the word “hope,” but we all need a reason to keep going, to believe that something good can be found in this crisis. I found reasons for hope in many places—in online courses, books, and programs. I was blown away by Joanna Macy’s work. And systems theory; I was like, “This is it!” All of this helped me to understand what “don’t-know-mind” means in the face of the climate crisis, and it showed me that, yes, one person can make a difference. Even simply holding space for other people can be powerful.

So, in 2022 and 2023 we launched a yearlong program that brought together 21 mindfulness teachers and practitioners from insight spaces and beyond. The aim was for us to learn where we could effectively fund, while building community among the participants and pooling our knowledge about practices that can help us to skillfully navigate the feelings of anxiety and grief that this crisis produces. The result of that yearlong project was an online flipbook called Earth-Based Mindfulness and Meditation: An Exploration of Ecodharma Practices.

We got great feedback from the group—a lot of the people who were involved in the project are still working together and still advising us. We learned a tremendous amount about where our funding can be most impactful so we started a second round of an advisory group, and that’s still running. Both groups point to the fact that racial injustice and inequality deeply intersect with the ecological crisis, such that responding to one entails responding to the other. This understanding has transformed our work and we are catalyzing action in ways that feel right.

What projects does the foundation have coming up?

Our next project is a retreat program we’re working on that will run for three years. Four centers geographically spread out will offer ecodharma retreats aimed at building community—Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, which just bought the Seven Oaks Retreat Center, and then a new retreat center called Big Springs Garden Retreat Center, out in Northern California.

Another topic I’m passionate about is supporting mindfulness and meditation teachers. In this time of climate crisis, they are holding us. But how are they holding themselves? How well equipped are they to handle their students’ fears around the climate crisis? This arose recently when we supported a project with MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stressed Reduction) teachers and their students. How can teachers address their own and their students’ climate concerns within the MBSR curriculum? We are also supporting a discussion of this topic with a group of Buddhist teachers. We hope that their feedback will advise us further on how the foundation can support mindfulness and meditation teachers in coping with their own and their students’ climate concerns.

What does it mean to you to be an IMS donor, and are there areas you particularly like to support?

Over the years we’ve given to specific areas, like the Teacher Training Program, and environmental sustainability projects, like the electric vehicle charging station and the new electric lawnmower. But as with other organizations we give to, I prefer to have IMS tell me what the needs are. I trust IMS to listen to our funding interests and respond appropriately.

I want IMS to thrive and to continue to do what it does so well. I love IMS, and am fortunate that it’s here in my backyard! I believe IMS plays an important role in our world. Many of the problems we face, including the climate crisis, exist because we have become distracted and disconnected, particularly disconnected from ourselves. I believe that collectively we need to establish deeper connections to our thoughts and feelings, and that doing that important inner work will result in deeper connections to one another and to the planet and its needs. That’s what I love most about IMS—that it fosters inner knowledge and offers a means of cultivating a world where we each can be of benefit to all beings.